Who needs Netflix? Here are 15 fantastic TV shows you can watch for free

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Huge numbers of us have been cancelling subscriptions to streaming TV, thanks to the end of lockdown and a rise in the cost of living, as well as price hikes for some of the services. In Britain, more than 1.5m video-on-demand accounts were cancelled in the first three months of 2022, according to the market research firm Kantar, while Netflix has lost 200,000 customers globally and expects to shed millions more.

The good news is that there’s plenty of high-quality TV that can be watched for free. Here are 15 great shows that you won’t need to fork out for.

Back to Life, iPlayer

Daisy Haggard’s comedy-drama about an ex-convict returning to her small home town after an 18-year sentence neatly subverts the coming-of-age story. Haggard’s Miri Matteson, sent to jail as a teenager, returns as an adult only to find herself forced to relive all the awkward horrors of her youth. As she attempts to adapt to modern life, she is shunned by the local community, with darkly comic results. Over two series we discover the nature of Matteson’s wrongdoing, as Haggard veers from comedy to tear-jerking pathos. An eminently bingeable watch, but one that is as unsettling as it is enticing.

Des, ITV Hub

A scene from Des, episode two
Des, episode two Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

ITV does chilling drama very well. In fact, the channel’s primetime schedules seem to be filled with nothing but the tales of murderous villains and the coppers charged with hunting them down. Three-parter Des is one of the very best of the recent bunch. David Tennant gives a shockingly convincing performance as the real-life Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who was arrested in 1983 when a drain blockage led to the discovery of his victims’ remains. It is a finely wrought work, imbuing every scene with Nilsen’s calculated evil.

We Are Lady Parts, All 4

Twenty years after the release of Gurinder Chadha’s seminal film Bend It Like Beckham, authentic British Asian representation is sorely lacking on mainstream film and TV. Enter Nida Manzoor’s sitcom about an all-female Muslim punk band’s quest to find a new guitarist. Despite this unlikely premise, the six episodes successfully explore the nuances of interracial difference, while tracing the importance of fellowship and friendship in marginalised communities. A prime example of commissioning that reflects the diverse talent of the UK.

Joe Pera Talks With You, All 4

Joe Pera’s mockumentary series follows the comic as he plays a fictional version of himself narrating his everyday activities – going for breakfast, wandering through New York, simply sitting on a chair … Hidden in the mundanity are sweet entreaties for patience with our fellow humans and an encouragement to stop and take enjoyment in the simpler things in life. Watch a few episodes and feel the warming sense of peace as you escape the pressures of the real world.

The Eric Andre Show, All 4

Graham Norton, eat your heart out. Comic Eric Andre’s talkshow has been taking the concept of chatting with celebrity guests to uncomfortable – and often dangerous – extremes ever since it premiered in 2012. The joy of Andre’s show often comes from the fact that his B-list guests usually have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. Cue Andre, stripping and destroying his flimsy sets while asking Mel B whether Margaret Thatcher had “girl power”. In the Shooting Stars and Between Two Ferns stable of surrealist celebrity fun.

Storyville, iPlayer

The BBC’s long-running strand of feature documentaries has rarely faltered. The highlight of its latest series is The Earth Is a Blue Orange – a heart-rending and unfortunately timely documentary about a Ukrainian family in the Donbas region as they live under siege in 2019. As a method of coping amid the chaos, single mother Anna and her four children decide to construct and edit a film about their lives, producing a quietly domestic portrayal of enduring human connection in the face of war.

Pulling, iPlayer

One of Sharon Horgan’s finest feats, the entire box set of this 2006 cult classic is available to stream on iPlayer. Horgan plays Donna, a 29-year-old office worker who decides to break off her engagement to fiance Karl and embark on a new life of singledom with her pals Karen (Tanya Franks) and Louise (Rebekah Staton). Chaos, of course, ensues, producing a masterclass in human messiness that makes subsequent similar shows such as Fleabag seem tame. Although Pulling was unexpectedly cancelled after only two series, its 13 episodes are a highpoint in British comedic writing from Horgan and Dennis Kelly – a peak they failed to climb again with their underwhelming 2021 lockdown film Together.

The Read, iPlayer

A new format from BBC Four, in this four-part series an actor gives a dramatic reading of a classic book, directed by an upcoming talent from the organisation’s New Creatives scheme. The result perfectly straddles the line between soothing background viewing and engrossing audio book. The first instalment features actor Danielle Vitalis giving a patois-laden version of Sam Selvon’s tale of the Windrush generation, The Lonely Londoners, while interspersing archive footage from the book’s 1950s setting. It is a perfect example of the BBC’s strengths – at turns informative and entertaining while revitalising existing material for new audiences.

A Suitable Boy, iPlayer

This glitzy, all-south-Asian cast adaptation of Vikram Seth’s mammoth tale of partition-era India seemed to sink without a trace when it aired in 2020. Set amid the vibrance and turmoil of mid-century India, the show is well worth revisiting for its performances. Bollywood newcomer Tanya Maniktala plays the lead, Lata, with a fresh-faced sense of curiosity and growing concern, while Indian film veteran Tabu relishes the sensuality of older courtesan Saeeda Bai. The theme of jilted romance may be tried and tested but it is depicted with a delicacy that lends more modern nuance.

Us, iPlayer

David Nicholls has a gift for writing that zips while evoking tears of laughter and sadness. In the hands of actors Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, this 2020 adaptation of his novel, recounting the last-ditch attempt of a middle-aged couple to salvage their relationship, is an escapist wonder. It should have attracted far more fanfare when it aired in September 2020, but its European locations, bumbling sense of humour and canny performances hold up two years later. At the very least, it’s perfect holiday inspiration.

Sitting in Limbo, iPlayer

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films about the legacy of the Windrush generation in the UK may have rightfully received the lion’s share of the headlines when it came out in December 2020, but this standalone film from earlier in the year is equally worth your attention. The real-life drama focuses on the story of Anthony Bryan, who found himself classified as an illegal immigrant after 50 years living in the UK. By focusing on a single person’s story, the film – and Patrick Robinson’s humane portrayal of Bryan – exposes the nonsensical cruelty of the government’s hostile environment policies.

Trigonometry, iPlayer

If Normal People was your lockdown go-to and the wait for the new adaptation of Conversation With Friends is too much to bear, this overlooked tale of a throuple’s relationship is a must-watch. As a couple struggle to make ends meet in London and open up their flat to a lodger, the series explores how the trio slowly become closer than just friends. The deft performances by the two female leads, Ariane Labed and Thalissa Teixeira, anchor the show in more than just its sexual frisson, making it a reflection on millennial relationships under financial pressures.

PhoneShop, All 4

Though overshadowed by contemporaneous sitcoms such as Peep Show and The Office, Phil Bowker’s heavily improvised 2009 sitcom about the employees of a suburban mobile phone shop stands up as one of the finest and most chaotic comedies this country has produced. Soundtracked by a frenetic mix of jungle, drum’n’bass and reggae, the ensemble show trades in anarchy – from the ranting monologues of Kayvan Novak’s regional manager, Razz Prince, to the masterful double act of Jerwayne and Ashley – and its surrealism always produces gags that land.

The World According to Grandpa, Channel 5

One for the kids, this charming storytelling series stars Don Warrington as the grandfather aiming to make sense of the world for his pint-sized audience. Each 15-minute episode tackles a new question – from how aeroplanes fly to why the sea is salty and why the world is round – in a gentle narrative that never feels lecturing. Also worthy of a shoutout is CBeebies’ fantastic My World Kitchen, featuring recipes from young cooks celebrating their heritage.

Married at First Sight Australia, All 4

Sometimes trashy TV is all you need, and for some reason Australia does it best when it comes to chaos and feverish levels of onscreen backstabbing. Series nine of this Aussie spin-off of the show that challenges singletons to – you guessed it – get married without having dated each other is available to stream on All 4. Behold as, over the course of two months, couples are paired off in the hope that their attachment styles will keep them together for the rest of their lives. A delightfully smug watch for you and your other half.

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