At this point we can’t imagine a world where our ex-partners aren’t syphoning off prestige TV from our streaming accounts, and frankly we don’t want to. Netflix and its ilk have revolutionised the entertainment industry, freed us all from pricey cable packages and provided tiger- and meth-based distraction through some extremely trying times.
But not all streaming platforms are created equal, and signing up to every single one will send your monthly subscription bill through the roof. That’s why we’ve decided to give you the lowdown on the best and most varied services in the UK, from world cinema platforms to child-friendly options.
In two words: Well curated
Price: Free (£3.99 without ads, 14-day free trial)
Navigation: Not amazing, to be honest. There isn’t a dedicated ‘film’ section in the category list, and so you have to scroll and rummage around until you find the Film4 thumbnail. Except, there are two Film4 thumbnails, and while one of them features the whole roster of movies (next to the ‘Featured Collections’ heading), the other (far more accessible) one inexplicably only features twenty. Madness! But also: it’s free, so we shouldn’t complain too much.
Positives: It boasts an impressive and eclectic catalogue of films, ranging from celebrated Film4-backed productions (12 Years a Slave, 24 Hour Party People, My Beautiful Laundrette) to world cinema (depending on when you’re reading this, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War may still be on the service. You should watch it right this very second). All 4’s themed collections, which change regularly, are also crammed with great films: the Pride 2021 playlist features Love Simon, 120 BPM and Simon Amstell’s Benjamin, while the Indian Film Season catalogue is a must-watch. That’s not to mention the app's forgotten classics spanning the past few decades, as well as the short films and indie projects that Channel 4 funds. The catalogue isn’t small– it’s curated, and all the better for it. Plus there’s loads of television shows to be getting on with (including, but not limited to: Seinfeld, Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, ER, The West Wing, It’s a Sin, Peep Show, The Simpsons, The IT Crowd, This is England, Stath Lets Flats and a wide array of absolute rot).
Negatives: As we say, the navigation isn’t the best. Also the regular adverts are frustrating – especially as, if you’re watching on a laptop, you can’t switch to another tab while they’re playing. You can go ad-free by paying £3.99 a month.
In two words: Family friendly
Price: £5.99/month (free 7-day trial available)
Navigation: Well organised and easy to navigate, but slightly tricky to find the series or episode drop-down menu on an individual show.
Positives: First thing’s first: every episode of The Simpsons – the classic ones, the great ones, the mediocre ones and the “Stop! Stop! He’s already dead!" ones – are all available to stream for the first time ever, alongside every Disney, Marvel and Star Wars film in existence. The new service hosts over 500 movies and 350 TV shows, including classic Disney capers and long-forgotten hits of your childhood. There are also original documentaries and behind-the-scenes extras.
Then there's the new STAR service on the platform, which is pretty impressive. At launch it boasts acclaimed shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Scrubs, Modern Family and 24, and also hosts OJ Simpson: Made in America – for our money the greatest sports/true crime documentary series ever made.
Negatives: It should come as no surprise that the quality free-falls once you’ve exhausted the top-tier line-up. It might take you a few months, but at some point you will find yourself watching Ray Liotta’s Operation Dumbo Drop.
In two words: Ad-free
Price: £11.99/month (free 30-day trial available)
Navigation: Easy – it is YouTube after all. You know the drill. In fact, you don’t even really need to navigate it: just choose a video and let the algorithm do its thing, as it churns out an endless cycle of related content that you might be interested in. The downside to that kind of mad machine learning, of course, is that you’ll eventually, inevitably, land on a three-hour conspiracy video dedicated to celebrity eyelids. Might as well hear it out, though – it’s not like you have anything better to do, is it?
Positives: YouTube ads are incessant, and getting rid of them is a major positive – especially when watching public domain movies and TV shows. The price may be high compared to some other sites, but considering how much time we actually spend on YouTube (over a billion hours a day collectively, according to Forbes) it’s not a totally unreasonable price to pay for ease of use. Premium also allows you to keep playing sounds while you switch between apps on your phone or tablet, and also when you decide to lock your screen – a pesky annoyance on the free model. What’s more, you can download videos to your device for offline use, a very useful feature for travelling (in the event that we’re actually allowed to travel anywhere anytime soon). You also get YouTube Music Premium along with the package, which features certain albums and tracks that Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal don’t have rights for.
Negatives: It’s relatively expensive and ultimately unnecessary if you don’t spend enough time on YouTube every day. The Premium deal doesn’t give you free access to YouTube’s wide selection of rentable/purchasable movies and TV shows (Amazon Prime also suffers from not clearly setting out its free selection), and they don't feature ads anyway.
In two words: Arthouse Netflix
Price: £9.99/month (free 30-day trial available)
Navigation: Great. It doesn’t try to categorise or algorithmicise its eclectic database too much, and it’s all the better for it – diving headfirst into unknown territory is part of the Mubi mindset. A four-hour near-silent movie set in feudal Japan? Why the hell not.
Positives: The palaver that surrounded Parasite’s Academy Award win revealed just how narrow-minded English-speaking audiences can be about world cinema. Mubi’s highly-curated collection will introduce you to foreign stories, directors and actors, as well as taboo-breaking, boundary-pushing arthouse movies that will challenge, move and occasionally bore the living shit out of you. What's more, Mubi has just announced a new 'Library' service that hosts a huge back catalogue of films.
Negatives: Smaller selection than Netflix.
In two words: Old reliable
Price: From £5.99/month (free 30-day trial available)
Navigation: Pretty slick. Everything’s organised under useful and impressively niche genres and categories (‘Cringe Binge’, ‘Irreverent British TV Programmes’ etc). The search function – which supplies you with recommended alternatives to movies you type in – is great too.
Positives: While it still pales in comparison to its American counterpart, Netflix UK has the best collection of readily-streamable movie, TV shows and documentaries bar none. What’s more, the ‘Netflix Original’ production house occasionally throws up a belter – recent highlights including Michael Jordan doc Last Dance, crime drama Ozark and the true-crime meme factory Tiger King. It’s also one of the cheapest options out there.
Negatives: A distinct lack of foreign cinema, and the site carries far fewer classic, mid-and-early-century movies than it once did. Passive aggressive ‘Are You Still Watching?’ prompts add a sad air to streaming binges.
In two words: Global cinema
Price: £4.99/month (free 14-day trial available, 30 with Prime)
Navigation: Not great, not terrible. It’s all divided into genres and thematic collections.
Positives: Similar to Mubi at half the price, BFI Player seeks to introduce audiences to arthouse cinema and contemporary classics (recent highlights include Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother and the ‘Japan 2020’ series of films, which includes Tokyo Story, otherwise known as the other greatest movie of all-time). It’s a broad mix of films, but recommendations from the likes of Mark Kermode will help you pick the right film. Much like Mubi the selection is relatively limited, but it also provides plentiful rental options at reasonable prices.
Negatives: No app. While that’s fine for now (if you’re able to cast your laptop screen to your TV), it’s frustrating for those of us who want to watch these great pieces of art as the director originally intended: cut up into 30-minute segments on a mobile phone during a rush hour commute.
In two words: Package deal
Price: From £7.99/month (free 30-day trial available)
Navigation: Probably the best of all the streaming sites. Easy to navigate and well organised.
Positives: The quality of NOW TV is really dependant on how much you’re willing to pay. The £8.99 Entertainment Pass has a good selection of critically-acclaimed TV shows that you won’t find on Freeview (Chernobyl, The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones), and the £11.99 Sky Cinema Pass is an impressive deal too – boasting over 1,000 movies and a steady stream of new ones, too. Hayu, the cheapest pass at £3.99, is a deep trove of reality TV episodes, and there’s a £3.99 kids option too.
Negatives: Combining the Entertainment and Cinema passes would make this the priciest option.
In two words: Kafka-esque mindfuck
Price: From £7.99/month (free 30-day trial available)
Navigation: Slow and cluttered and baffling, seemingly driven by algorithmic data over any kind of design philosophy.
Positives: For £7.99 a month you’ll also be receiving all Amazon Prime benefits. That means unlimited one-day and same-day delivery, Prime Music, Kindle’s lending library, as well as access to Amazon Pantry and a host of other features. It’s far more than a streaming site – it’s part of a lifestyle package. It has its own original programming, too.
Negatives: The selection is pretty hit and miss, and the navigation is – have we mentioned this? – bad.
In two words: Dave on-demand
Price: From £5.99/month (free 7-day trial available)
Navigation: Really easy. Neatly divided into genre tabs at the top and more granular divisions further below, there are also editorialised collections – celebrity superfans picking their favourite Spitting Image episodes, for example.
Positives: Created by the BBC and ITV, this is mainly a resource for classic British TV shows. If you’re the kind of person who still stubbornly refuses to engage with American comedy (a huge percentage of the population, weirdly!) then this is a perfect option. But while the massive box-set collection is the main draw, the service also offers a wide catalogue of British films – from forgotten comedy feature lengths to indie dramas. It’s also one of the only streaming sites that’s still invested in hosting old classics, like Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday.
Negatives: It just doesn’t have the same amount of quality films as other sites. Click along the British Film Classics category, and it’s not long before you end up on stuff like The Inbetweeners Movie and Porridge The Film – not bad by any stretch, but hardly classics. It won’t take you too long to exhaust BritBox’s best offerings, either, and after that you’re left with the Carry on collection and an assortment of long-forgotten World War II movies. Still, the film section is a nice addition to a very strong catalogue of brilliant British TV episodes from across the century.
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