From golden oldies to modern classics, 20 best TV boxsets for self-isolating over-70s (and how to watch them)
With the over-70s facing the prospect of being stuck indoors for months but left cold by much of the noisy, trashy, youth-obsessed programming that litters the terrestrial schedules, we’ve curated a list of 20 top box set suggestions for mature viewers.
They span from drama to documentary, from old-but-gold classics to recent highlights, from homegrown hits to foreign favorites. We’ve also indicated where to find them all. Please let us know your own recommendations, too. In the meantime, hunker down for some happy viewing.
House of Cards
“You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.” Forget the glossy Netflix remake starring disgraced Kevin Spacey as a Washington DC power-player and instead savour the UK original, adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’ novel. The BBC’s 1990 political thriller stars Ian Richardson as deliciously dastardly Conservative chief whip Francis Urquhart (suggestive initials: FU), who schemes his way into 10 Downing Street. It’s a mere four majestic episodes long but afterwards, dive into sequels To Play The King And The Final Cut.
Available on: BritBox, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Trilogy £17.49)
Around the World in 80 Days
Vicarious adventures ahoy. You might not be able to travel right now but Michael Palin can. Or at least, he could in this glorious 1989 series inspired by Jules Verne’s classic novel. Challenged to circumnavigate the globe without using aircraft, to the same deadline as Phileas Fogg, the former Monty Python comic traversed 17 countries in 79 days. He’s charming company but it’s as much about the people he meets along the way. Not bad considering Palin was the BBC’s fourth choice as presenter behind Alan Whicker, Miles Kington and (shudder) Noel Edmonds.
Available on: BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (£10.69)
For pure escapism and nostalgia, what better screen spectacle to lose oneself in than Granada’s gorgeously lavish 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel? Jeremy Irons plays Charles Ryder, the Oxford student bewitched by the dysfunctional aristocratic family of his dissolute friend Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews). Castle Howard in North Yorkshire stands in for the Marchmains’ palatial country seat, while a distinguished supporting cast is led by Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and, of course, Aloysius the teddy bear.
Available on: BritBox, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Collector's Edition £27.99)
Mapp and Lucia
This giddy Channel 4 romp, adapted from EF Benson’s comic novels and airing in the mid-Eighties, is 10 episodes of sheer joy. Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan star as the titular “frenemies” in the quaint Queen Anne town of Tilling-on-Sea, forever snobbishly competing for the social upper hand. Sterling support comes from Denis Lill as Major Benjy and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie. The BBC made a decent stab at a remake in 2014 but it couldn’t touch this one.
Available on: DVD (Complete Series £21.54)
The Monocled Mutineer
Three years after he wrote Boys From The Blackstuff (itself available on BritBox), Alan Bleasdale adapted the true story of conman Percy Toplis, who led the Etaples Mutiny during the First World War and briefly became the most wanted man in Britain. Paul McGann was magnetic as the roguish anti-hero. The four-parter was watched by a rapt audience of 10m yet has never been repeated due to the controversy it stirred over alleged BBC bias and historical inaccuracies.
Available on: DVD (Complete Series £4.99)
The Repair Shop
This warm, gentle reality series became a surprise daytime hit, so last week earned a promotion to primetime BBC One, where it duly pulled in impressive ratings of 6m. Each episode follows skilled artisans who take family heirlooms with sentimental value for their owners and lovingly restore them to their former glory. Like Antiques Roadshow meets a crafting show, it’s full of lovely human interest stories and soothing for the soul. The ideal balm for these troubled times.
Available on: BBC iPlayer
Anyone who lived through the Cold War will relish this period spy thriller, set between 1981 and 1987. It follows two undercover KGB agents - played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (a Welshman playing Russian playing American, impressively) - posing as a suburban married couple in Virginia to covertly gather intelligence on the US. Their mission becomes even trickier when an FBI counter-intelligence expert moves in next door. Tense, twisting, pleasingly cerebral and highly evocative.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Series £34.99)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
More than four decades since it first aired, this 1979 John le Carré adaptation still mesmerises with its glacial pace, Cold War gloom, murky morality and labyrinthine plot. Alec Guinness won a BAFTA for his portrayal of retired spook George Smiley, called back to “the Circus” for one last mission: to root out the deep-cover Soviet mole embedded within MI6. The 1982 sequel, Smiley’s People, is arguably even better.
Available on: BritBox, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Double Pack £7.99)
Take a walk down Manhattan’s Madison Avenue circa 1960 in this dapper period saga, widely hailed as one of the best dramas of all time. Immerse yourself in its world of ambitious advertising agencies, three-martini lunches, womanising executives and secretaries who really run the show. Seven series take us through an entire decade, finishing in 1970. From the exquisite production design to the chic costumes, it's a masterpiece with style and substance.
Available on: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Collection £43.99)
Play for Today
The BBC’s Seventies anthology series, following the one-off teleplay format which proved such a success with ITV’s Armchair Theatre strand, caught some of our best screenwriters and actors in the early stages of their careers. From Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, from Jack Rosenthal's Spend, Spend, Spend about pools winner Viv Nicholson to Just Another Saturday, set around Glasgow’s annual Orange order march and starring a young Billy Connolly, there are all manner of rare delights under its banner.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video or some on DVD
The West Wing
Writer Aaron Sorkin’s political drama set in the corridors of the White House - cue lots of trademark “walk-and-talk” scenes - is a winning blend of formidably researched realism and compelling high-class drama. As senior Oval Office staff navigate crisis after crisis, the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent. Martin Sheen’s wise, well-read, Nobel prize-winning leader Josiah “Jed” Bartlet fels, tragically, from another political age entirely.
Available on: Sky Atlantic, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Series £46.77)
Roughly translating as “homeland”, this labour of love tells the turbulent story of Germany through the eyes of one family from Hunsrück in Rhineland, close to the French border. Written and directed by Edgar Reitz, it’s an epic achievement, cinematic in scope, setting domestic life against the wider socio-political backdrop, while switching from colour to black-and-white to convey emotion. The original 1984 series covers 1918 to 1982. Its sequels take us through unification and into the 21st century, before hopping back to 1840.
Available on: Sky Arts or DVD (£42.44)
Line of Duty
Writer Jed Mercurio’s drum-tight, jargon-laden police thriller has become a ratings phenomenon since its promotion from BBC Two to BBC One in 2017 but it’s well worth going back to the beginning. Anti-corruption unit AC-12 investigate a string of suspected bent coppers - brilliantly played by the likes of Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, Thandie Newton and Stephen Graham - uncovering deeper conspiracies along the way. With filming of series six currently halted due to coronavirus, the first five will fill the gap nicely while we wait.
Available on: BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Series £30.63)
The Jewel in the Crown
Awards and acclaim were rightly lavished on Granada’s sumptuous 1984 study of the British Raj's last days in India, based on Paul Scott’s quartet of novels. Shot on 16mm film, mostly on location in India, it told a resonant story over 14 ravishing hours. It made stars of Charles Dance and Art Malik, while it’s an indication of the ensemble cast’s quality that all four "Best TV Actress" nominations at that year's BAFTAs went to stars of the series: Judy Parfitt, Geraldine James, Susan Wooldridge and Peggy Ashcroft (who won).
Available on: BritBox, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (£14.21)
Both BAFTA-winning series of writer Peter Moffat’s clever crime drama aired across five successive nights on BBC One, which meant too many viewers missed them. Now is the ideal time to rectify that. The first series, later remade in the US as “The Night Of”, stars Ben Whishaw as a young man accused of a murder he can’t remember after a drunken night out. The second stars Maxine Peake as a housewife whose abusive husband was stabbed in their bed. Were they guilty and will they go to prison?
Available on: BBC iPlayer or DVD (Complete Collection £6.99)
Band of Brothers
After teaming up for Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks masterminded this stunning small screen portrayal of comradeship, courage and trauma among US infantry in the Second World War. Based on veterans’ true testimony, it dramatises the history of “Easy Company” from paratrooper training back home, through to the Normandy landings, and finally to Japan’s capitulation. Powerfully performed and visually astonishing.
Available on: Sky Atlantic, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (£14.99)
There are flashier, more fashionable police procedurals on the box but writer Chris Lang’s is one of the most underrated - and far superior to most “9pm on ITV” fare. Met duo DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) investigate cold murder cases, invariably narrowing down the suspects to a rollcall of heavyweight actors. Tom Courtenay and Mark Bonnar both won BAFTAs for their performances. Moving as well as gripping, it also takes time to explore the emotional aftermath of crime for both victims and perpetrators.
Available on: BritBox, Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Complete Series £22.99)
Self-isolation could mean self-improvement if you use the time to delve into the magnum opus by art historian Kenneth Clark - ambitiously commissioned by then-BBC Two controller David Attenborough. Over 13 episodes, Clark outlines the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy from the Dark Ages to the 20th century. Visually stunning, seductively enthusiastic and unashamedly erudite, it redefined what factual television could achieve. As poet John Betjeman described Clark: "The man who made the best telly you’ve ever seen.”
Available on: BBC iPlayer or DVD (£15.33)
If you’ve ticked off the big Nordic noir series - The Killing, The Bridge and Wallander - next on your list of subtitled crime classics should be this fine French drama (original title: Engrenages). Across seven superbly immersive series, the multilayered story casts a forensic, unforgiving eye over the entire Parisian police and justice system, mixing tense whodunits with political intrigue, gallows humour and cracking cliffhangers. Très bon.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video or DVD (Series 1-6 £34.99)
It’s sweaty khakis and stiff upper lips all-round in this much-loved Eighties PoW drama about the expatriate British and Dutch communities in Singapore, who become caught up in the horrors of war when the Japanese invade in 1941. Three series followed the women separated from their families and herded into a makeshift internment camp, as they pluckily found strategies to survive their appalling conditions and cruel treatment. The title comes from the Japanese word meaning “roll-call”, trivia fans.
Available on: DVD (Complete Series £32.63)
What are your recommendations for streaming? Which shows do you think should be streamed but are currently unavailable? Join the discussion in the comments section of this article and Michael Hogan will be in the comments at 4pm (GMT) today to discuss your tips and suggestions.
How to watch Michael Hogan's recommendations online:
Go to netflix.com. Enter your email in the box and click Try It Now. Choose your price plan - £5.99 is basic, large families might prefer the £11.99 plan which allows you to watch on four devices at once. Choose a password. Set up your payment - remember, it is monthly and you can opt out any time. You can watch online via your laptop or computer, or find the Netflix app on your smart TV, Virgin Media, Sky device or plug-in, where you'll be able to log in and start watching.
Go to amazon.co.uk. Click sign in and create your account. You will need to add your payment details, but you will not be charged anything yet. On the homepage click on the 30-day free trial for Amazon Prime. Click again on Try Prime Free. You will now have 30 days free. Remember to cancel before the 30 days is out if you do not want to continue. Otherwise, it is £7.99 per month thereafter. You can opt out any time. As with Netflix, you can watch online or via most devices (not Now TV or Sky).
Go to britbox.co.uk. Click try 30 days free. Set up your account - again you will have put in your payment details. You will not be charged anything until your 30 days are finished - thereafter it is £6.99. You can opt out any time. You can watch online, or via Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, Apple TV, smartphones and smart TVs.
BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub
There is no charge for either service. Head to bbc.co.uk/iplayer or itv.com and, when prompted, create an account. Most devices will have an iPlayer and ITV Hub app; you can also watch online.