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Peaky Streamers: A Guide to the Best Services for British Movies and TV

Illustration: by Martin Gee

American viewers looking for British TV shows and movies can often be stymied by a byzantine system of international rights and a scattered system of streaming services that carry different slices of U.K. content. Yet we can’t get enough: British actors win Academy Awards at a remarkable rate, while the TV world obsesses over shows like Call the Midwife, Peaky Blinders, and Luther (to say nothing of your The Crowns and Downton Abbeys). Anglophiles simply love this stuff, and as more fans of British TV and film cut their cords to cable and satellite, they’re turning to streaming services for their needs. Let us guide the way.

Acorn TV

Remarkably affordable compared to many of its peers, Acorn TV has long been one of the most prominent brands for Anglophiles. They not only have one of the deepest catalogues of old shows, they’ve also moved into creating their own original programming, including recent offerings like Bloodlands with James Nesbitt and Deadwater Fell with David Tennant. Deep with mystery programs — a genre that the Brits do notably well — this is the gold standard for programming from the U.K. in 2021, the one that seems to be the most ambitious and carefully curated.

What to Watch: Line of Duty, Midsomer Murders, Doc Martin, Murdoch Mysteries, Foyle’s War

Monthly Cost: $5.99

BritBox

BritBox was put together by the BBC and ITV, so it comes with the pedigree of generations of quality British programming. Launched in 2017, it has become one of the bigger niche streaming services in the world, sheerly through the depth of its catalogue, which includes acknowledged classics all the way up to current hits and original programming. In terms of size, BritBox may be the way to go for people looking to dive into the history of British culture, although it arguably doesn’t have the original programming of some of its competition, and a lot of its catalogue is also available elsewhere. Still, in terms of sheer quantity, it really can’t be beat.

What to Watch: Doctor Who, The Fall, The Office, Sherlock, Pride and Prejudice

Monthly Cost: $6.99

BFI Player Classics

The newest player in the streaming game comes with the pedigree of the esteemed British Film Institute, an organization that has been at the forefront of film preservation and conversation since its inception in 1933. Boasting the world’s largest film archive, the BFI hasn’t had a streaming service in the United States until 2021, when it launched BFI Player Classics, an option that includes over 200 British productions. If you’re less interested in digging through the catalogues of the major streamers and just want something that’s curated purely for fans of the British canon, this is the place to go.

What to Watch: The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom, The Third Man, The Wicker Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth

Monthly Cost: $5.99

PBS

People are still too quick to forget about the depth and quality of work done by the Public Broadcasting System, which is still free in most of the country and offers historic brands like Masterpiece Theatre, along with beloved original programming like Downton Abbey. PBS doesn’t have the brand reach of a streaming service like Netflix or HBO Max, but it has a grounded legacy when it comes to quality programming and curates a rich catalogue of British dramas for all audiences.

What to Watch: Prime Suspect, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Poldark, All Creatures Great and Small

Monthly Cost: Free

Netflix

There’s a reason that the King of the Streamers has an entire genre page devoted to “British TV Shows.” It knows how to give people what they want. And it doesn’t hurt that original dramas and reality shows from the land of the royals are a major part of the company’s identity, one that extends beyond just the shelf of awards the company has won for The Crown. Almost as dense as Acorn TV or Britbox, Netflix offers hours of British programming of all genres for a reason: It’s good for business.

What to Watch: Broadchurch, Black Mirror, The Great British Baking Show, The Crown, Peaky Blinders

Monthly Cost: $8.99 for the basic plan

The Criterion Channel

Some of the best films in the history of the United Kingdom can be found exclusively on the crown jewel of streaming services, the Criterion Channel, the service that boasts the deepest catalogue of undeniable classics. Criterion has long embraced the film industry of the U.K., putting films by David Lean, Powell and Pressburger, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold, and many more on its physical releases, long before transferring so much of its catalogue to streaming. One can’t go wrong with Criterion, and its British film selection is arguably the deepest out there. A complete picture of the history of British filmmaking could really start here.

What to Watch: Black Narcissus, Brief Encounter, Life Is Sweet, Withnail & I, Fish Tank

Monthly Cost: $10

HBO Max

The most ascending streamer in the business in 2021 is HBO’s expansion of its TV brand into HBO Max, which rolls up the catalogues of Warner Bros., TCM, Criterion, and even Studio Ghibli into one place. The sheer unmatched scope of HBO Max means that it has hours of entertainment for fans of British culture, including classic films, shows, and even new offerings like the critically acclaimed latest from Michaela Coel and Russell T. Davies. HBO is one of the best companies out there when it comes to importing quality work from around the world, and it’s certainly not going to ignore some of the most prominent creative voices of the U.K.

What to Watch: It’s a Sin, I May Destroy You, Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, A Room With a View

Monthly Cost: $9.99

Sundance Now

The streaming service devoted to the legacy of the brand Sundance arguably embraces British culture more than the film festival so often associated with it. There are enough British shows on Sundance Now that there’s an entire section devoted to them, and most are of the “dark mystery” brand that the Brits do so well. As the section page says, “The U.K. nails these dark series every time. Maybe it’s all the black tea?” Unlike some other streamers, Sundance Now also has a healthy selection of original British programming, including shows starring Archie Panjabi, Tim Roth, and, of course, David Tennant.

What to Watch: Des, The Drowning, River, Rillington Place, Next of Kin

Monthly Cost: $6.99

Amazon Prime Video

It may not have the depth of other services like Acorn TV or Britbox, but the truth is that one of the most brand-defining shows in Amazon Prime history, Fleabag, is from the great British writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and the company always has a hearty selection of older programs and British films to watch alongside that comedy great. Amazon Prime has one of the most revolving doors of any streaming service, meaning classic British television is constantly coming and going from the service.

What to Watch: Fleabag, Luther, Good Omens, Absolutely Fabulous, Gavin and Stacey 

Monthly Cost: $8.99

The Best Streaming Services for British Movies and TV