Desert Island Documentaries by Dr Natalie Thomlinson #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

With the government advice that we are all in lockdown we thought we would take a slight departure from our usual format to give you Natalie Thomlinson’s best Historical Desert Island Documentaries. Something to fill the gaping historical hole in some of our lives…

We’re all getting to spend a lot more time inside these days, and sitting on the sofa and watching tv go together like chips and cheese. After a lifetime spent watching the sort of history documentaries mostly aimed at your 75-year-old CAMRA member Grandad, let me selflessly pass on my hard-won knowledge and tell you what to watch to get you through the lockdown. Just remember history’s one great lesson: however bad things are now, they were almost certainly worse in the past. And with that, put on the kettle, crack open a beer, get some snacks, and adopt a supine position on the sofa. You’re going to be there for a while.


7) Time Team (Channel 4, 1994 – 20104)

Not one for the purists, as this is technically archaeology rather than history. But I spit in the face of disciplinary boundaries! Sometimes you want serious people talking about serious subjects, and sometimes you just want a bloke with a west country accent and a woolly jumper enthusing wildly about entirely featureless 2000-year-old bits of broken pot. Time Team is what I would call peak hangover history tv, ideal for when reaching to the remote to change the channel seems like too much effort and you want to be transported back to an era when lying on a sofa all day groaning softly all day would have seemed like, well, luxury. The ‘Secrets of the Saxon Gold’ special on the Staffordshire Hoard (remember when the amateur enthusiast with the metal detector stumbled across Britain’s most significant ever Anglo-Saxon archaeological find in a field in Lichfield?) is particularly good, if you like that sort of thing.

6. Britain’s Greatest Ships (Channel 5, 2018)

Have I included this simply because it features Reading’s very own Dr Richard Blakemore as a talking head? Well, yes, maybe. But little cheers me up more than hearing Richard wax lyrical about the lives of 17th century sailors (truly, an interest I never knew I had until I washed up on the shores of this history department) , and in these times, cheering up is what you need.

5. The BBC Archive

Not strictly ‘history’ documentaries in that they document the society of the time, but the online BBC archive has a quite incredible selection of tv documentaries from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s which provide an incredible insight into how much our lives have changed in modern Britain. I am very fond of showing these to my students, as they will tell you. (TV is very educational!). I am particularly fond of two series called  Women at Work (1974) and  Marriage Today (1964)  and the hand-wringing attendant by the talking heads about whether women should work outside of the home, and whether sex before marriage could every truly be moral. Questions for the ages, I’m sure you’ll agree. Also some excellent retro styling going on in these, and the accents win awards of their own. Why do so many people sound like the queen?!

4. The Secret History of our Streets (BBC, 2012)


Based on Charles Booth’s famous London Poverty Maps (LSE) Maps , this series picked six London streets and traced their history over the last 100 or so years. An incredible testament to the way in which parts of London rose up and down the social ladder, and then back up again, and the mixed fortunes of the inhabitants of the streets, this is one of the best social history documentaries I have ever watched. It is micro-history at its best; afterwards, you too will probably be thinking that blowing 50 quid of your own hard-earned cash on an edition of Booth’s maps seem like a sensible investment. (Did I do this? Certainly did!) And if you happen to live in London, you can always have the fun of spotting the places you know; perhaps treat yourself with a walk to one of the streets as one of your daily rations of exercise…? Or maybe you’d just like to watch some more TV instead.

3. Lefties (BBC, 2006)

Documentary maker Vanessa Engel’s three-parter about the British left in the 1970s and 80s does not on the face of it sound like compelling viewing. But this fantastic series provides a wry look at the ins and outs of the arcane debates of the British left (People’s Front of Judea vs Judean People’s Front, anyone?), its idiosyncrasies, and indeed, its general tendency to self-sabotage. Particularly good is the episode on the squatters on Villa Road in Brixton , where a primal scream therapeutic commune co-existed with houses of drug-fuelled punks, speculum wielding feminists, ex-Etonians at war with their background, a Dutch man called Pym who led (still leads) a lifestyle ‘which does not require running water’, and a local thief that the street decided to take in rather than shop to the police. Watch out for Piers ‘brother-of-Jeremy’ Corbyn making a particularly good cameo appearance explaining the internal contradictions of capitalism to the bemused filmmaker. He’s a long range weather forecaster now, go figure.

Squatted houses in Villa Road, Brixton, London, 1977.

2) World At War (ITV, 1973-4) 

This is probably the most famous entry on the list; thanks to constant repeats on British TV pretty much since the moment it was made, most people in the UK will have seen a least an episode of this at some point, possibly without even realising it. But this 26 (26!) part documentary series from the mid 1970s well and truly stands the test of time, covering almost all aspects of World War Two in sobering and scholarly detail, with some amazing interviewees including Traudl Junge (Hitler’s secretary) and Albert Speer (the Nazi’s favourite architect), all delivered in a beautiful voiceover provided by Laurence Olivier. Properly good. Even better, it’s available to watch for free on UKTV play during the lockdown!

Access to this series can be found via YouTube and pay for view sites.

1. People’s Century (BBC/PBS 1995-1997)

Truly, the history documentary to end all history documentaries. The scope and ambition of People’s Century – which aims to tell the story of the twentieth century across the entire globe, through the voices of the ordinary people who lived through events – is simply stunning. It first came on TV when I was at primary school, and from the moment I heard the gorgeous waltzing theme tune, I was hooked. When it was on, my parents indulged me with the most significant of all concessions in a middle-class family: I was allowed to eat my dinner in front of the telly. Result! I could tell even then that my parents appeared to be somewhat bemused by their ten-year-old daughter’s taste in tv, but I was right then and I’m right now. My love for history was already strong as a kid, but this taught me that listening to the voices of the man and woman in the street was how you found out what it actually felt like to live through big historical events. Like World at War, this is also 26 episodes long, but you can hardly say you don’t have time to watch it now, can you?

people C


Honourable mentions also go to

Servants and  Shopgirls  (BBC, 2012 and 2014).
Working-class women generally get a raw deal in terms of their representation – or rather, lack of – in TV documentaries. In these two wonderful series, Pamela Cox explores the history of servants and shopgirls in 19th and 20th century Britain, and brings their stories vividly to life. I once met Pamela at a conference and embarrassingly fangirled her in the bar; she was very nice about it. My mum also liked this one a lot.

Black and British (BBC, 2016)
David Olusoga really nailed this four-part documentary on the history of Black people in Britain. A fascinating history that surprisingly few people know about.

Anything by Janina Ramirez
Perhaps I am predisposed to like Janina Ramirez as someone who is also fond of black hair dye and dark clothes myself, but she is fab. Particularly liked her programmes on  Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons and on The Viking Sagas

Cold War (BBC/CNN 1998).
Another extremely long series (24 episodes) to really get stuck in to. My big brother Dan (also a history teacher) is a huge fan of this. Access to this series can be found via YouTube and pay for view sites. 


So, on our desert island there is also The Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible but to see us through any extension to our time on the island we may need a Radio Times subscription. Luxury item? Obviously a massive HD TV.

You can find out more about Natalie at and on follow her on Twitter @sadhistorygeek.

Natalie’s current research on women in the Miners’ Strike can be found at and an online exhibition here Coalfield Women

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