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10 TV documentaries

We’re all probably discovering a lot about ourselves at the moment – how much we actually like banana bread, for instance. But there is so much more to discover. And so, here are 10 picks from the world of TV documentaries that will broaden even the broadest of horizons.

1. Michael Palin in North Korea (Channel 5)

There’s no better way to sum up Michael Palin’s venture into North Korea better than the Sunday Times critic who described it as the ‘world’s most genial man venturing into possibly the world’s least genial country’.

And what an arresting treat it is too, the Monty Python star shedding a little bit of light on the mystery of this most private of nations in a three-part series for Channel 5.

There is no better travel companion than Palin and, of all his trips around the world, this is up there with his best.

What they say: ‘It was a treat to see Michael Palin back in travel mode for the first time in years … I can’t think of a travel documentary I have enjoyed more than this recently.’ Daily Telegraph


2. The Jinx (Sky Crime)

Few documentaries are as acclaimed or as influential as The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

The six-part investigation tells the story of Robert Durst, the multimillion dollar real estate heir charged with murdering his best friend to cover up the killing of his wife.

That trial is in part sparked by the explosive climax to this documentary which first aired in 2015. Now his trial has been suspended because of coronavirus and now is the perfect time to catch up.

What they say: ‘So hard-boiled you could be watching a Coen Brothers movie’ The Guardian


3. Richard Hammond’s Big (Discovery)

No, Richard Hammond isn’t very big but there’s no need to go looking for the Trade Descriptions Act because this Discovery series is all about the presenter having a rummage around things that are very big indeed.

His journey takes him behind the scenes of some of the world’s largest structures and machines, from the longest underground railway tunnel to a cargo ship the size of four football pitches. Oh, and a German car factory that manufactures its own sausages (6.8 million a year of them).

Informative and fun, Hammond’s enthusiasm can’t fail to rub off on the viewer. Turns out good things come in small and large packages.

What they say: ‘Hammond proved himself a likeable and self-deprecating presenter, genuinely interested in what he was discovering and enthusiastic without being too over the top’ iNews


4. Prue Leith: Journey with My Daughter (Channel 4)

This is the Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith judge as viewers have never seen her before.

45 years after she adopted a Cambodian baby, Li-Da, the pair of them travel together to the country for the first time in search of her biological family.

It’s an unforgettable journey of discovery that is heartwarming and heart wrenching in equal measure.

What they say: ‘Fascinating … A touching film about the importance of heritage.’ iNews


5. Griff’s Great Australian Adventure (ITV)

A throwback to another time when not only was it okay to leave the house for prolonged periods of time, you could travel all the way to Australia.

And there’s no better companion to accompany you on this amazing adventure than Griff Rhys Jones.

The comedian and presenter’s ‘journey of a lifetime’ takes in the country’s extraordinary sights, unique wildlife and fascinating people, all from the comfort of your sofa.

What they say: ‘Griff Rhys Jones travels through the country, discovering the origins of the railroads, the stories of the people who operate them and the communities that rely on them.’ Variety


6. Lenny Henry’s Race Through Comedy (Gold)

A fascinating series that looks at how far Britain’s attitude towards race and multiculturalism has come over the years, as reflected by the changing face of TV comedy.

Lenny Henry takes us on a journey through the archive and interviews some of the stars and programme-makers of the day (then and now).

From Love Thy Neighbour to Desmonds, Mind Your Language to Goodness Gracious Me, it’s a funny, thought-provoking and occasionally stomach-churning watch.

What they say: ‘Sir Lenny Henry is the perfect host for this … an illuminating picture of how comedy has been evolving into an ever-better place right up to the likes of Phoneshop, People Just Do Nothing and Chewing Gum.’ Chortle

7. McMillions (Sky Documentaries)

McMillions is part of the opening slate of a brand new factual channel, Sky Documentaries, which launches next month.

The six-part stranger than fiction documentary is executive produced by Mark Wahlberg and tells the extraordinary story of the multimillion dollar scam of the McDonald’s Monopoly game back in the 1990s.

Sky Documentaries will launch on 27 May alongside another brand new channel, Sky Nature, and Sky History, a co-branded venture between Sky and A+E Networks previously known as History.

What they say: ‘McMillions: We’re Lovin’ It.’ Vulture


8. Expedition Unknown (Discovery)

Like a real-life Indiana Jones (he knows the first three movies off by heart) Josh Gates travel the world in search of the truth behind some of the world’s most iconic legends.

His journey began five years ago, seeking new evidence about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

Expedition Unknown has since taken in Nazi gold, Stonehenge, the Ark of the Covenant, Egyptian mummies and an attempt to resurrect a woolly mammoth. And that’s not the half of it.

Just don’t ask him about the fourth Indiana Jones film (‘I pretend it doesn’t exist’)

What they say: ‘Adventurer and explorer Josh Gates popped the cork on the mummies' tomb on Expedition Unknown. Now he's off to find Nazi loot.’ Den of Geek


9. River Monsters (ITV)

River Monsters is not so much a fishing show as an underwater detective story, according to its presenter, extreme angler and biologist Jeremy Wade, which goes some way to explaining its success.

Wade travels the world to discover the real-life creatures behind the legends and local folklore of underwater monsters and man-eating fish.

Gripping and extraordinary, this is one angler who doesn’t need to tell you stories about the ones that got away.

What they say: ‘Compelling television that has continued to draw in viewers week after week, season after season.’ The Guardian


10. Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain (Channel 4)

No reality star shone brighter than Jade Goody.

The Big Brother contestant became a household name - and a permanent fixture on the front of Heat magazine - after she appeared in the third series of the Channel 4 reality show. But that was only the beginning.

This touching three-part documentary series reflects on her extraordinary story and first aired on Channel 4 last year, 10 years after her death from cervical cancer.

What they say: ‘Comedy, romance and drama all in one’ Daily Mirror


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