The best ITV documentaries — find out all the must-see factual series and shows

Best ITV Documentaries - Heathrow: Britain's Busiest Airport
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Looking for the best ITV documentaries to enjoy? We've got you covered.

ITV is best known as the home of the nation’s favourite soaps, dramas, and game shows, but there is another less regarded but equally rewarding side to the network’s content – factual series and documentaries.  

Just like it’s more family-friendly entertainment, ITV's documentary content is aimed squarely at the mainstream, with shows like Long Lost Family and Paul O’Grady For the Love of Dogs among the most popular. 

It also has engrossing one-offs, like Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum and Kate Garraway: Finding Derek, which offer something a little different from their normal content. Crucially, though, the programmes are always very human, heart-warming (or breaking), and relatable stories.

We’ve drilled down into all their programming currently available to watch on the ITV Hub streaming service to recommend the shows that any fan of documentaries will enjoy. Even if documentaries aren't normally your cup of tea, you’ll definitely find something to pique your interest among our selections.  

The best ITV documentaries

'Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs'

Best ITV Documentaries - Paul O'Grady For the Love of Dogs

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There is no better time to dive into the award-winning POGDOGS, as the pandemic has turned us into a nation completely obsessed with dogs (as if we weren’t anyway!), with thousands of us turning to our four-legged friends for comfort in the dark days of multiple lockdowns.

The wonderful thing about POGDOGs (and its national treasure presenter, Paul O’Grady) is that it doesn't just show the unconditional love dogs have to give but also the other side. In every episode, Paul pays a visit to Battersea Dogs Home and gets to get to know some of the poor mutts who, for many different reasons, have found themselves homeless, and then attempts to find them a new home. 

Every episode tugs at the heartstrings — none of the dogs deserve anything other than a warm and loving home — and delivers happy endings among the sad stories. Woof!

Seasons available: 1

Episodes: 4

Duration: 45 minutes

What the critics say: The Guardian “It remains an oasis of tranquillity, a haven of kindness, with good people doing good things for good dogs. Thus it was when it first began in 2012, thus it is and thus it ever more shall be, even when O’Grady finally passes on the torch.” 

'Long Lost Family'

Best ITV Documentaries - Long Lost Family

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This BAFTA-winning series does what it says on the tin. It track down close relatives who have become separated over the years and it delivers intense tear-jerking moments as it details the how, when and why of cases in which people, some of whom have been searching desperately in vain for years, became estranged.

Working the same emotional terrain as POGDOGs but with the added dimension of getting to the root cause of why the families became ‘lost’, the series is presented with empathy but little schmaltz by the sterling presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell. 

You can also catch two episodes of Long Lost Family: What Happened Next on ITV Hub. 

Seasons available: 1

Episodes: 12

Episode length: 60 minutes

What the critics say: iNews  “It took me exactly 10 minutes and 11 seconds to burst into happy tears at last night’s heartwarming episode of Long Lost Family. The series has been on for a decade but its continuing power to move and entertain is a sign that the formula still has life.” 

'The Savoy'

Best ITV Documentaries - The Savoy

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An insight into the behind-closed-doors machinations of London’s byword for luxury and prestige, The Savoy is a jaw-dropping depiction of bullying, poor corporate behaviour and strange, super-rich guests. It shows various staff going about their daily tasks, meeting and greeting and catering for the great, the good and the grotesque.

If you enjoy shows about how the other half live with a side order of Gordon Ramsay dropping in to skewer his staff at the Savoy Grill, this is the show for you. Head butler Sean is another character to look out for — it’s one thing to maintain high standards but it’s quite another to belittle new staff while the cameras capture your every word. Thank heavens for the florist Mary Kate, who is humble, funny, and a breath of relief. 

Seasons: 1

Episodes: 2

Episode length: 60 minutes

What the critics say: The Guardian — “I couldn't help thinking that there must be some better stories in there somewhere. It all feels a bit on-message – like everyone and everything has been thoroughly vetted by the Fairmont PR machine before being allowed anywhere near a camera. In short, it's a bit too “I am Savoy’.” 

'Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum' 

Best ITV documentaries - Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum

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In Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum, the mercurial, lavishly talented singer and actor and star of Cilla and The Big C allows the cameras into her house and life after a period dogged by personal tragedy (her father’s death) and media attacks (following West End production walk-outs), but this one-off documentary wins her new fans for the way she talks honestly and sincerely about her struggles with the bottle and anxiety.

Sheridan Smith unwittingly became a champion of mental health awareness, just a by-product, really, of what is essentially an engaging story about her and her partner, Jamie, becoming first-time parents. “Maybe I was looking for something in the wrong places and now I feel like I’ve found it in this little boy,” she says. A lovely portrait of a misunderstood woman.

Episodes: 1

Episode length: 60 minutes

What the critics say: — “Apart from her acting abilities, the qualities which made Sheridan Smith a star were her authenticity and lack of pretension. Both shone brightly from ITV’s affecting documentary.” 

'Kate Garraway: Finding Derek'

Best ITV documentaries - Kate Garraway: Finding Derek

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The popular Good Morning Britain presenter Kate Garraway documents the changes to her and her family’s lives after her husband, political campaign advisor Derek Draper, catches Covid-19 during the first wave of the virus. 

Whilst Derek thankfully recovered, his battle with the virus was quite literally a fight for his life, as his vital organs packed up and he was placed in an induced coma in the early stages of his illness.

Finding Derek is as much a portrait of a family’s struggle as it is of Derek's battle and eventual recovery. Kate is a top performer and her presentation of this one-off will be regarded as one of the best TV productions to come out of these dark days. 

Episodes: 1

Episode length: 60 minutes

What the critics say: The Guardian — “Soundtrack aside, it is a documentary that knows what it is doing and does it well. It knows what a natural asset it has in Garraway and puts her to good use.” 

'9/11: Life Under Attack'

Just when you thought every angle had been covered in programmes about the atrocities that took place on September 11, 2001, ITV pops up with an extraordinary one-off production during which the public and emergency workers within the vicinity of the Twin Towers share their own footage of what took place that dreadful day.

Directors Brook Lapping and Karen Edwards have painstakingly created a harrowing tapestry from video and audio recordings made by the public, members of the emergency services, airlines and more people directly involved in the day’s events. Must-see television based on a day no one will ever forget.

Episode: 1

Episode length: 90 minutes

What the critics say: Radio Times  “‘That’s a very hard thing to watch,” says a news presenter as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center unfold live in front of her. The same could be said of this documentary, a skilfully assembled but harrowing montage of first-hand stories from New Yorkers who filmed what they lived through that day.”  

'Inside Britain’s Food Factories' 

Best ITV documentaries - Inside Britain's Food Factories

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Remember that distant time when our food factories were humming with the buzz of full production, with efficient supply chains and few shortages of essential ingredients? You can recall and rejoice in these thriving industries in this fascinating series about how our most beloved food and drink items are created.

From Yorkshire puddings at Aunt Bessie’s to the world’s biggest pea factory at Birds Eye and miles of sausages at Heck, viewers get a new perspective on the commodities we take for granted.

Presented by Downton Abbey actress Siobhan Finneran, Inside Britain’s Food Factories may well be ITV’s version of the BBC programme Inside the Factory, but it has its own merits and rewards. 

Seasons: 1

Episodes: 6

Episode length: 30 minutes 

'Joanna Lumley’s Unseen Adventures' 

Sometimes the shows about TV shows are better than the documentaries themselves, and while we love national treasure Joanna’s breathy descriptions of the exotic regions she takes us to in her captivating travelogues, there’s something nice about this buffet approach to her travels in which we see more of the real Joanna.

Japan, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and beyond — we see them all, as well as her various slips, unexpected dramas, outtakes, and comical asides to the crew in this winning making-off series. We especially enjoy how she gets so passionate and excited about Japanese toilets!

Also available on ITV Hub: Joanna Lumley’s Home Sweet Home: Travels in my Own Land and Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: From Havana to Haiti.

Season: 1

Episodes: 3

Episode length: 60 minutes

'Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport' 

Best ITV documentaries - Heathrow: Britain's Busiest Airport

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So much has changed since COVID-19 decimated the travel industry in 2020 that this is almost a historical series! 

Heathrow has fallen to just inside the top 10 busiest airports in Europe, with traffic 71% lower than levels in 2019, but Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport is here to remind us of what life inside the bewildering and unique world of a super-size international airport is like.

Sample stories in this long-running series include ‘Border Force Bob’ escorting drunk passengers off flights, wanted men being headed off at the Arrivals gate, medical emergencies on incoming flights, and mysterious packages from Amsterdam getting the sniffer dogs all worked up. Ahhh, those were the days. 

Seasons available: 1

Episodes: 10

Episode length: 60 minutes

What the critics say: The Telegraph — “This docu-soap has shades of Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s Come Fly with Me.” 

'Wild China with Ray Mears'

Best ITV documentaries - Wild China with Ray Mears

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Ray Mears might not have the profile of David Attenborough or Bear Grylls, but this unassuming bushman and adventurer delivers a fascinating insight into the amazing fauna of the vast country as he dives into eight distinct landscapes, ranging from the wildlife of Beijing and the Great Wall to fishing with cormorants on the Li River.

This seven-part series delivers some stunning moments worthy of Mears’ more esteemed rivals, including tracking and filming the elusive giant panda, bearded vultures in flight, the rare snow leopards and even Asian elephants. As Mears himself says, China has ‘staggering country’ and ‘astonishing birdlife’. 

Prepare to be fascinated.

Seasons: 1

Episodes: 7

Episode length: 30 minutes 

Patrick McLennan

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.